Researching Single Women’s History – First Steps

Starting the research with books that include keywords in their title

The first step in my research is always to find as many books as I can about the specific subject I’m researching. When I started looking into the history of single women, I immediately came across a number of works that proved to be incredibly important in helping me develop my ideas. These books all had the words “single” or “spinster” in the title, which is how I found them easily with a Google search.

SINGLEWOMEN IN THE EUROPEAN PAST 1250-1800

Edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide and published in 1999, Singlewomen in the European past 1250-1800 was the first book I read to help me understand the role and significance of single women throughout history. It’s an impressive work that covers numerous centuries and gives a great overview of the social, economic, and legal status of “singlewomen” (never-married or not-yet-married). It includes highlights of certain countries at certain times, such as Early Modern Venice, Medieval Paris, and Early Modern England.

Some of my main takeaways from this specific book were the differences in the percentage of singlewomen between urban and rural areas, as well as between northern Europe (England, the Low Countries) and southern Europe (Italy). The demographic information also helps show that throughout the centuries, single women have consistently represented between 10% and 20% of women – a relatively high number, given the societal and religious pressures to marry. As Amy M. Froide demonstrates here and in another one of her books, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (2005), some areas in England even had over 30% of singlewomen at times!

A fantastic introduction to the study of single women in western Europe (Spain, England, France, Italy, Low Countries, Germany), there is limited focus on the lives of individual women, although the ones that are mentioned can be especially interesting, such as the medieval peasant Cecilia Penifader, about whom Judith M. Bennett wrote extensively in another book, or the Flemish educator and poet Anna Bijns, whose verses on singlehood are translated in the book.

A look at part of the table of contents from Singlewomen in the European past 1250-1800

LIBERTY A BETTER HUSBAND: SINGLE WOMEN IN AMERICA: THE GENERATIONS OF 1780-1840

Written by Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller and published in 1984, this groundbreaking book was the first – as first as I’m aware- to explore the lives of single women. Focused on a very specific time and region, the subjects (over 100 of them!) are educated middle-class and upper-class white women from the northeast of the U.S.A. The author herself recognizes in the introduction the lack of representation, which stems in part from a lack of records for an already overlooked segment of the population (unmarried women) and also because of the author’s interest in exploring the motivations these women had to remain single, which required for them to be educated enough to write and have their writings survive.

This work is especially significant because of the number of individual women that are mentioned, from the famous ones – such as the writer Louisa May Alcott whose quote gave the book its title – to the forgotten ones. Furthermore, the numerous quotes available give the reader great insight into the thoughts of these women, a very valuable record of that time.

THE SINGLE WOMAN IN MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN ENGLAND: HER LIFE AND REPRESENTATION

Edited by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler and published in 2003, this collection of essays gives the reader insight into how medieval and early modern England understood the concept of the single woman. Various literary texts which illustrate the idea of the single woman – mainly the religious virgin, the maiden in the tales of chivalrous knights, and the widow – are analyzed, which helps contextualize the social norms of the time. Literature is a great tool to understand the perceptions that society had of certain things at certain times. The representation of single women as young virginal maidens or old widows – but not independent adult women of childbearing age – is an important aspect of the history of single women, a segment of the population often overlooked, even today.

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES and SPINSTER

These two books are both New York Times bestsellers, and for good reason! Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016) and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (2015) look at the contemporary single woman and use history as a lens to add perspective and insight.

All The Single Ladies gives an overview on the history of marriage and single women in the U.S., with a focus on 19th and 20th-century women such as Louisa May Alcott, Susan B. Anthony, and Gloria Steinem (an icon for single women in the 1960s and 1970s, she didn’t marry until her 60s ). Other chapters explore the lives of contemporary single women and the author’s own path through her 20s and early 30s as an independent single woman. Rebecca Traister is now married with two children, but, as she points out, her young adulthood was fundamentally different than that of women from the generation prior, often married with children in their early 20s.

Spinster looks back at five historical women writers from the 19th and 20th centuries who have inspired the author herself: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilmore. It weaves the biographies of these women with the author’s own story, offering an insightful exploration into the timeless struggle of women’s lives, torn between career and motherhood, independence and financial stability, personal fulfillment and societal expectations.

ALWAYS MORE:

More examples of history books that specifically focus on single people also include the following:

  • Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century, written by Betsy Israel and published in 2002
  • Single Life and the City 1200–1900, edited by Julie De Groot, Isabelle Devos, and Ariadne Schmidt and published in 2015 – which focuses on Northwestern Europe such England, France, Belgium and Sweden
  • Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England, by Amy M. Froide and published in 2005

Next step: finding individual single women in general women’s history books

A common theme across these books is that they center on the history of single women in Early Modern Europe or the 19th and 20th centuries in North America. Therefore, I knew I needed to find more names of single women outside of that scope – including by finding the stories of single women with no children before the 19th century and those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

I will post below links to upcoming blog posts about my research on those women:

Finding the stories of medieval single women (coming soon!)

Finding the stories of single women in Asia (coming soon!)

Finding the stories of single women in North Africa and the Middle East (coming soon!)

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